Damore's Pseudoscientific Google manifesto is a better evidence for sexism than it is for intellectual sex differences

Pseudoscience is effective. If it weren’t, people wouldn’t generate so much of it to try to justify opinions not supported by the bulk of the evidence. It’s effective because people trust science as a method of understanding the world, and ideological actors want that trust conferred to their opinions. They want their opinions to carry that authority, so they imitate science to try to steal some of that legitimacy for themselves. However, science is not flattered by this behavior, it is undermined and diminished.

The Damore Manifesto (PDF with hyperlinks) or “Google anti-diversity memo” is just such an example of pseudoscience, and largely by accident, it has gained outsize attention for what is essentially a C-grade highschool research paper. We will get to a deconstruction of Damore’s scientific case for gender differences in a moment (See the Scientific Critique section below), but I would first like to point out that it has served as an excellent bellwether for those who have more sexism than sense when it comes to evaluating scientific claims. It has proven itself compelling to a large number of people in the media, for example intellectual lightweight David Brooks, who finds it so compelling he calls on Google’s CEO to resign. He makes the astonishing claim that Damore is championing “scientific research” while his opponents are merely concerned with “Gender equality” (Classic false bifurcation fallacy). He also declares Evolutionary Psychology to be “winning the debate” and goes on to talk about superior female “brain connectivity”, and with a sigh, I wonder what Snapple cap he learned these “facts” from. Not only is this highly debatable, but even if male vs female patterning exists there is no reason to think that it is unaffected by environment and cultural patterning on brain plasticity. If boys supposedly have more developed motor cortex and girls more emotional wiring is that because the boy’s first toy was a ball, and the girl’s is a doll? The declarations that this is a settled question is absurd. We don’t know, and there are too many confounders to be making statements about biological inevitability with regards to gender when we are positively soaking in gendered norms of behavior.

XKCD evo-psych

Brooks conclusion, an example of being incompetent and unaware of it, is the Google leadership either “is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob”. He never considers the possibility, and given this is Brooks the inevitability, that he is wrong and has been hoodwinked by rather mediocre pseudoscientific argumentation. In these reactions, we learn more about these authors’ biases than we have learned about the suitability of women to write code, as the “manifesto” conforms to Brooks’ rather predictable biases and therefore receives almost no skepticism relative to the weight of the claims, which are hefty. Why is Brooks so blind to the shoddy scholarship of the Google memo?

Ironically, within the memo itself, we have the answer:

We all have biases and use motivated reasoning to dismiss ideas that run counter to our internal values.

With this we see the continuing evolution of pseudoscience, as they continue to evolve and mimic actual scientific debate and knowledge, the scientific language of motivated reasoning (the cultural or identity-protective cognition responsible for denialism), has filtered into their lingo. This is fascinating in itself, as the author has clearly read about motivated reasoning, yet is completely blind to it for the rest of his essay. This essay is classic pseudoscience, built on motivated reasoning, that uses a half a dozen references, cherry-picked from the literature, to make the astonishing claim that women are underrepresented in his white-collar workforce because of fundamental biological differences (read defects) affecting their capability to perform in a purely intellectual job. It is another in a long line of “just so” pseudoscientific justifications of gender or racial disparities that just happens to defend the status quo (subtext – “why I shouldn’t have to sit through any more mandatory diversity training”).

This is a wonderful example of Panglossian reasoning and if you haven’t read Candide, here is an example:

Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.”

Candide listened attentively and believed implicitly, for he thought Miss Cunegund excessively handsome, though he never had the courage to tell her so. He concluded that next to the happiness of being Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, the next was that of being Miss Cunegund, the next that of seeing her every day, and the last that of hearing the doctrine of Master Pangloss, the greatest philosopher of the whole province, and consequently of the whole world.

Everything old is new again. What Voltaire was mocking were the glib and facile justifications of injustice in his time, which presume the current state of the world is in its best possible state and everything you see is the result of natural inevitability. Candide in Silicon Valley would exclaim, “Oh Pangloss, why is it that men are so over-represented in tech?” and Pangloss’s response, “For men are better at tech because of their intrinsic personality traits, and in this best of all possible worlds, male personality traits and even their flaws make for the best-possible technology and business practices.”

Anyone who has been following the Uber saga might question Panglossian reasoning about why tech is male. Even if the tech sector, as it exists today, is male-dominated because men perform better in the current pathological and Machiavellian environment, that doesn’t mean this is ideal, that it isn’t hugely, culturally flawed, and maybe desperately in need of womanly empathy. Taking such data at face value, an industry that is blind to the needs of fully half of its customers, or blind to the potential benefit of the perspective of the other half of the population, is playing with fire. Do we really think situations like Uber’s are a coincidence given the toxic masculinity of its leadership? The male-dominated model is not the best of all possible worlds. The male-dominated model was built by men, for men, so why be surprised when less women are attracted to it and fare worse within it?

A Scientific Critique of Damore’s Claims

Other authors have already done some of the heavy lifting, tackling the low scientific credibility of these claims and placing them in the historical context of the usual power-dynamic of trying to scientifically justify the status quo. These are useful, but we can expand upon them and use this essay as a learning opportunity for how to detect pseudoscience, so one hopefully doesn’t have to go through all the effort of endless debunking every time an ideologue vomits up some new dreck to explain why it’s only natural males, or whites, or whomever comes out on top.

And that is one thing we should immediately detect, the similarity to historical “just-so” arguments of scientific racism from the last few centuries. These arguments are old news, as anyone who has read Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man can tell you, and crop up whenever the dominant class in society has to explain why they’re on top without admitting it’s because they pushed everyone else down then pulled the ladder up after themselves. Once you hear people talking about why current race or gender divisions are natural, one should immediately take whatever argument is coming with a massive dose of skepticism. We have heard this nonsense before.

Let’s start with Damore’s words so it’s clear I’m addressing the scientific claims of his argument, contained in the last element of his TL;DR section and supported by the handful of actual scientific citation.

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

Now keep in mind, this is in the context of an 69:31 M:F ratio at Google which is even higher in the engineering at 80:20, and arguments there is a strong business case for diversity.

Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech
On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just
socially constructed because:
● They’re universal across human cultures
● They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
● Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify
and act like males
● The underlying traits are highly heritable
● They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these
differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men
and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why
we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences
are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything
about an individual given these population level distributions.

It’s so nice that he cleared that up about not applying these findings to individuals this is hard to reconcile with the fact he is suggesting the 69:31 ratio or 80:20 engineering ratio at Google is in some meaningful way affected by these differences. Further, each of these statements lacks citation and can not be taken at face value, and I would describe them as either all wrong or grossly oversimplified. While the differences in gendered personality he subsequently describes is consistent within any culture examined, they are not consistent between cultures, which shows these are still culturally-dependent and not purely biologically deterministic (And of course, there is no matriarchal culture for comparison 😉 ) I have no idea why he conflated the research on androgens on personality development using CAH or androgen insensitivity with studies of personality changes in castration related to sex-reassignment, and prostate cancer treatment (if anyone can find a study of those “castrated at birth” please show me as I cant find it – I suspect he’s confused). He mixes two effects by saying androgens in the womb have effects on subsequent personality (likely but difficult to separate from gender norms) but then saying traits are heritable. Which is it? The Y chromosome or exposure to androgens? One is genetic, one is congenital. Finally, it’s rare to find examples where EP is truly “predicting” anything and not just indulging in the just-so stories and adaptationism (my favorite example of an evo-psych just so), i.e. more Panglossian logic. The field is…problematic, and strong statements about EP predictions like “exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective” should set off alarm bells.

Each of these statements are gross simplifications of large bodies of research, some of which are highly problematic areas with reproducibility problems, to justify a 2:1 or even 4:1 difference in hiring of men:women at Google. There is a general rule that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”, well here is a man saying the reason Google has 2-4x as many men as women isn’t just the known, historic, institutional sexism that kept women from voting, owning property, having access to college education, equal pay etc., but fundamental biological differences across all cultures, that exists from birth, programmed by testosterone yet highly heritable (wah?) and conforming to predictions of a controversial scientific field that starts with conclusions and works backward to explanation. These effects are large enough, apparently, that Google should not try for parity in hiring and stop diversity training. Riiight. You better have some rock solid data to back this up.

Let’s look at the extraordinary data on why the women are so terribly disadvantaged based on their biology for software engineering (heads up, it’s a couple of wikipedia articles, and about 3 scientific citations)

Personality differences
Women, on average, have more:

Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.
Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness.
This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.
Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.
Note that contrary to what a social constructionist would argue, research suggests that “greater nation-level gender equality leads to psychological dissimilarity in men’s and women’s personality traits.” Because as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.

For this segment he cites the wikipedia page on “sex differences in psychology; personality traits”, only useful for some background, not proof women!=engineers.

He cites This paper, which summarizes meta-analyses in the literature of personality with a reproducible effect showing that in a 6 dimensional model of personality traits women and men consistently score differently on being interested in “persons” vs “things”, and also that these sex differences in behavior are consistent across cultures. To be fair supporting literature exists which correlates these personality trends with differences in vocational choices, so it’s plausible that, all things being equal, there may be a gender gap in some professions based on personality traits.

This may be the only item of interest in his entire paper, as it is reproducible and there is evidence it impacts what choices the different sexes make about jobs. The problem I have with it is there is no way to control for the effect of how humans, starting when we’re toddlers, start to consolidate gender roles. If the image of the engineer or tech industry is predominantly male, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It also assumes that the current male-dominated status of tech couldn’t benefit from traits on the female axis including better interest in “persons” and creativity/artistic expression. The argument becomes a tautology, men are attracted to the tech sector because the tech sector is male. Add to that the tendency of institutions to maintain homogeneity by effects like in-group bias, and you see why male-dominated fields may remain static. Just imagine if we had accepted similar Panglossian logic 50 years ago that these gender-distributions as some kind of inevitable consequence of natural gender preferences, we’d still have only male doctors, lawyers, and executives, because, this is the best of all possible worlds, and there must be some evolutionary psychology to explain why there are no women doctors, or lawyers, or executives.

Damore then cites the wikipedia article on the Empathizing–systemizing theory. This appears to be moderately central to his argument, but again it is weak evidence. Not to beat a dead horse, but we are once again starting with the assumption that the current state of affairs represents some kind of ideal – the dominance of men in the field is “just so” because they’re more adapted to it, rather than they adapted the field to themselves or that there’s a host of historical factors such as women only got the right to vote in the last 100 years, co-ed schools in the last 50 years, they are still treated as second-class citizens including when it comes to pay. It also accepts one of the authors underlying assumptions, which is outside of my experience, which is that empathy is bad for engineering at Google. I can’t debate that, but least one former Googler has responded to this assertion and says absolutely not:

What I am is an engineer, and I was rather surprised that anyone has managed to make it this far without understanding some very basic points about what the job is. The manifesto talks about making “software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration” but that this is fundamentally limited by “how people-oriented certain roles and Google can be;” and even more surprisingly, it has an entire section titled “de-emphasize empathy,” as one of the proposed solutions.

People who haven’t done engineering, or people who have done just the basics, sometimes think that what engineering looks like is sitting at your computer and hyper-optimizing an inner loop, or cleaning up a class API. We’ve all done this kind of thing, and for many of us (including me) it’s tremendous fun. And when you’re at the novice stages of engineering, this is the large bulk of your work: something straightforward and bounded which can be done right or wrong, and where you can hone your basic skills.

But it’s not a coincidence that job titles at Google switch from numbers to words at a certain point. That’s precisely the point at which you have, in a way, completed your first apprenticeship: you can operate independently without close supervision. And this is the point where you start doing real engineering.

And once you’ve understood the system, and worked out what has to be built, do you retreat to a cave and start writing code? If you’re a hobbyist, yes. If you’re a professional, especially one working on systems that can use terms like “planet-scale” and “carrier-class” without the slightest exaggeration, then you’ll quickly find that the large bulk of your job is about coordinating and cooperating with other groups.

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering. Anyone can learn how to write code; hell, by the time someone reaches L7 or so, it’s expected that they have an essentially complete mastery of technique. The truly hard parts about this job are knowing which code to write, building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.

Tom Smykowski says, engineers need more empathy
If true, this kind of knocks the teeth out of this particular “just so” justification that empathy is maladaptive. Is it possible, that the current culture of masculinity and therefore insularity is holding tech back? Couldn’t one make just as good an argument here, that Google hasn’t maxed its potential until it harnesses women’s superior social and interpersonal skills to help with things like teamwork and management? Is there no positive side to hiring women? And that is assuming these are large enough difference between women and men on these behavioral traits to justify hiring twice as many men as women.

Take a look at a recent paper from the theorist behind the E-S scale – Simon Baron-Cohen – and the differences on his Autism Spectrum Quotient scores (a newer scale Baron-Cohen has validated from the EQ SQ research and seems to have moved onto) for women vs men and STEM fields vs others that Damore is alluding to (I have to make some leaps here, Damore links the “E-S scale” wikipedia, which is a touch dated, without indicating a specific study, and ostensibly is referring to this work by Baron-Cohen who has advanced the idea of the “male mind” and autism being an excess of male mental traits – this itself has been critiqued as “neurosexist”). Studying an enormous database Baron Cohen finds a statistically-significant difference in AQ score between men and women, and women and those in STEM:

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0141229.g005

While this may be statistically significant, it’s still a tiny difference – a matter of about 3 points on this scale between men and women, and women and STEM workers who, on average, also tend to have a similar 2-3 point higher AQ score than the female mean. To put this in perspective, this is a 50 point scale, and the nonclinical range of AQ is consistently in the teens to twenties while those diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder have a mean around 35. It is also hard to conclude the differences between women’s score and STEM isn’t due to intrinsic or cultural factors – again, the best of all possible worlds fallacy, and it is no evidence to believe that 2-3 points difference in the mean score explains 2-4 fold gaps in hiring of men vs women. Draw a line at about 21 and ballpark an SD, of +/- 8 points, are there 2-4x as many men under the curve right there? Of course not. There’s too much meat under that curve to justify more than a couple of points difference in outcomes, assuming the effect is highly meaningful or beneficial. Alternatively, you could make an argument from the tails, that you could conceive of the extremes of the population such as AQ > 40 having approximately 2x as many men with this trait. One would have to believe that the population at google is so far shifted to the right in terms of male braininess, that the majority of the population at google has a mean AQ beyond 40, basically suggesting they all would score higher than the mean for those with autism spectrum disorder.

At the same time that Damore is critical of reducing populations to their means when there is significant overlap, to believe his argument – that tech is segregated by gender because not enough women have the “male mind” described by Baron-Cohen – requires one to believe that the status-quo ratio represents the ideal workforce, that these tiny differences in gender behavior are so debilitating as to explain the 2-4x difference in hiring, and that nothing beneficial is brought to the table by “empathic” team members. This makes no sense, these differences are slight. The area under the curve doesn’t support that these tiny differences – even if they were intensely meaningful, could generate such large differences in hiring. The areas where the variance between the populations becomes larger than the female population size is far above typical scores for ASD. Is the contention that the neurotypical can’t code?

Barely worth mentioning, he alludes to negative female personality traits by including a link to this wikipedia article on Neuroticism. This is a similarly weak argument. Again the effect is meaningless in size, if you go to the primary literature it’s consistent but small. There is no evidence such an mild difference in gender behaviors with regards to neuroticism would result in such a dramatic difference in hiring or performance, nor is it explained why neuroticism would be less adaptive in engineering vs other fields.

Finally he cites this opinion piece dismissing wage gaps between genders from a Libertarian online magazine, ignored without comment.

Does anyone maybe feel already the evidence here is a bit…light? You’re going to tell an entire gender they can’t do engineering based on a 3 psychology papers showing small and likely irrelevant differences in gendered behavior, a couple of wikipedia pages, and a libertarian opinion piece about how the wage gap is imaginary? You are surprised when women read this and they’re pissed? Do those saying this is “science” like David Brooks want to maybe rethink their expertise on this topic? Because they’re not looking too competent right now. This is classic pseudoscience – a weak, cherry-picked literature is flogged to support extreme ideological nonsense.

Next Damore asks why might men be more suited for software engineering? Well he’s got a whole paragraph and three more “sciencey” citations to justify that:

Men’s higher drive for status
We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we
see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not
be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.
Status is the primary metric that men are judged on4, pushing many men into these higher
paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail. Note, the same forces that lead men
into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and
dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of
work-related deaths.

To justify this he cites the Atlantic opinion piece “The War Against Boys” which counter-intuitively suggests women are better at school than boys, and it’s boys whose performance is undermined (and this helps Damore’s argument how?). He cites this paper on gender differences in mate selection criteria, sadly is paywalled but it’s conclusions are college men prefer good looks, and college women want financial success in a mate, therefore men are more competitive for status jobs in order to satisfy female sexual selection. One could point out, this is a gross simplification of human mating dynamics and is one effect among many in human attraction or every woman alive would coo over Donald Trump. Finally he cites this paper on effects of testosterone on college age men that found when injected with additional testosterone in an Ultimatum game they behaved more aggressively, but also more generous to those who made them bigger offers thus supporting the idea testosterone enhances “status seeking” behavior. Again one would have to believe this is a large enough effect that women and men have no interest in tech or engineering for any other reason than mate selection. Or show that those engineers seeking status are running higher testosterone levels than men in other “high status” jobs to show this is anything other than a suggestive result. It is further discredited by the fact that over the last 40 years women have pursued more and more “high status” jobs. Although their numbers are more uneven with regards to “things important” type (read engineering) fields, to say this is biological determinism and not male obstructionism is not justified based on a single testosterone experiment done in college students and a oversimplified view of mate selection. It ignores that women are perfectly capable of being engineers and functioning at the top of fields like physics or mathematics, and human mating behaviors are far more complex than “women are gold-diggers.”

Again. Does anyone here find the evidence here a bit light? David Schmitt seems to agree and his research is that being cited by Damore:

Still, it is not clear to me how such sex differences are relevant to the Google workplace. And even if sex differences in negative emotionality were relevant to occupational performance at Google (e.g., not being able to handle stressful assignments), the size of these negative emotion sex differences is not very large (typically, ranging between “small” to “moderate” in statistical effect size terminology; accounting for perhaps 10% of the variance1). Using someone’s biological sex to essentialize an entire group of people’s personality is like surgically operating with an axe. Not precise enough to do much good, probably will cause a lot of harm. Moreover, men are more emotional than women in certain ways, too. Sex differences in emotion depend on the type of emotion, how it is measured, where it is expressed, when it is expressed, and lots of other contextual factors. How this all fits into the Google workplace is unclear to me. But perhaps it does.

As to sex differences in mate preferences and status-seeking, these topics also have been heavily researched across cultures (for a review, see here). Again, though, most of these sex differences are moderate in size and in my view are unlikely to be all that relevant to the Google workplace (accounting for, perhaps, a few percentage points of the variability between men’s and women’s performance outcomes).

Culturally universal sex differences in personal values and certain cognitive abilities are a bit larger in size (see here), and sex differences in occupational interests are quite large2. It seems likely these culturally universal and biologically-linked sex differences play some role in the gendered hiring patterns of Google employees. For instance, in 2013, 18% of bachelor’s degrees in computing were earned by women, and about 20% of Google technological jobs are currently held by women. Whatever affirmative action procedures Google is using appear to be working pretty well (at least at the tech job level). Still, I think it’s important to keep in mind that most psychological sex differences are only small to moderate in size, and rather than grouping men and women into dichotomous groups, I think sex and sex differences are best thought of scientifically as multidimensional dials, anyway (see here).

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Damore’s use of his research and the data on increasing “status” vs “things” jobs suggests women might have been settling for those jobs only as they were in enforced gendered roles. Schmitt also seems to agree, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and these effects are small. Linking gendered behavioral differences to massive differences in performance in tech or engineering is an enormous stretch of logic. Schmitt emphasizes uncertainty, and the need to recognize complex role of gender on human behavior, he sure sounds like a scientist (for an Evolutionary Psychologist 😉 ).

The one who doesn’t sound like a scientist is Damore, who it turns out falsely claimed to have a PhD, gave his first interviews to alt-right youtubers, compared Google to Soviet prison labor camps even wearing a “Goolag” shirt for his WSJ editorial. He sounds less like a scientist, and more like he’s read the Crank Howto. I don’t understand how he ever expected to keep his job, after it turns out he did not have a PhD, he blasted a crank manifesto at his workplace that demeans a significant portion of the Google workforce, managed to embarrass his company on a national level, and ultimately demonstrated fundamental incompetencies in analysis and workplace etiquette. He would probably benefit from some training along the empathy axis, but instead is nursing a google-sized persecution complex.

To summarize, a junior, not-PhD employee of Google has written a 10 page document which purports to explain that the massive imbalance in male:female ratio at the company is not necessarily due to historic struggles of women for equal representation in equality, readily measurable bias, or structural sexism, but is instead due to female biology. The evidentiary basis for this argument is 3 bullet points followed by 3 short paragraphs that cite a few wikipedia pages, some libertarian/rightwing opinion pieces, a handful of papers on gendered differences in behavior showing some interesting but small differences between men and women, a bizarre reference to data from males castrated at birth (please someone find me that paper), some handwaving about male/female sex selection and “status” belied by a 40 year trend in women increasingly taking higher status jobs, and a borderline sexist psychological theory about “masculine brains” with similarly small differences between men and women. Notably, all of his arguments are dependent on the assumption that the male brain is fundamentally better at engineering because they got these jobs first and are thus appropriately over represented, and qualities like empathy and interpersonal skills don’t contribute to what is already a flawlessly healthy corporate culture in tech. By this logic women don’t do well in this culture because female cognition is inadequate to the task, not because it’s hard to fit in as a woman in at the boys club.

https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/how_it_works.png

He does not discuss or cite any of the extensive literature for the constant measurable bias women undergo in the workplace. His argument dismisses the more probable negative effects of historical oppression of women (denial of the vote, of property, of jobs, of education) well into the last century as well as ongoing structural sexism. He fails to link these effects to actual performance or interest in software engineering, he grossly oversimplifies the relationship between culture and behavior in favor of radical biological determinism, and wraps it into a typical Panglossian “just-so” story.

After predictably being fired for sending a crudely-argued, c-grade essay on why “girls like talking not math”, he has now made the rounds of the alt-right internet, the antediluvian editorial page of the WSJ, and has cried persecution at Google comparing himself to a slave laborer. He denies he’s an ideologue, even though as example of left wing denialism he cites John Tierney of the Manhattan Institute, and his argument that global warming scientists are the real threat to science (plus Rachel Carson DDT revisionism – yay!). By their fruits you shall know them.

What this shows is, the people who are impressed by his line of argumentation and series of events are ideologically-primed to accept it, not that they are particularly good judges of science. Pay attention to who buys into this uncritically, it’s better evidence for weak, sexist minds than it is for weak minds of a sex.

The Rolling Stone Fallout and What This Means for Rape Victims

I’ve been following the fall-out of the Rolling Stone article a Rape on Campus as well as their evolving preamble to the story, first expressing doubt, then seemingly dismissing Jackie’s account, now falling somewhere in-between with assertions that they have supporting evidence that Jackie was assaulted that night, but no idea of the details. I got a visit from some overly gleeful commenters that seemed to rejoice that the story is a hoax, and Jackie a liar, but it’s clear this situation is more complex. The story contained more than Jackie’s experience, and the focus of our original discussion on the article still is valid. That is, universities and colleges are using internal sexual assault boards to avoid Clery act reporting, and suppress the real numbers and problem of sexual assault on campus. This was largely based on my experience as an undergraduate (albeit over a decade ago) working on such panels and finding them disturbing on many levels. The Cavalier daily features an editorial from a friend of Jackies asking for support because her experience with her in her freshman year was consistent with Jackie’s story, she had an abrupt and negative change in her behavior and shared with her it was from a sexual assault. This is not a hoax, but the story of a hurt and confused girl who was done a disservice by Rolling Stone in their failure to independently confirm the details of her case.

What form should that confirmation have taken? I wrongly believed they had independently confirmed details of that night with Jackie’s friend. To WaPo’s credit, they did real reporting and tracked down those sources who should have provided the confirmation for Erderly’s story. Interestingly it is a mixture of confirmation that something happened to Jackie that night, but also that she had exaggerated in the retelling. My main objection in categorizing the early objections to the article as a smear was that it was largely based on an an armchair critique by Richard Bradley that it just sounded wrong. Granted, that should be the basis for investigation, but not dismissal of the claims. Liz Seccuro, a rape victim while at UVA whose rapist is now in prison was similarly upset by his position that the details were too shocking, and therefore unlikely. Her words a powerful response to his article:

Unlike most people who read the article, I was not shocked by it; I was gang-raped at Phi Kappa Psi at UVA in 1984. My story was a small part of the article, for which I spent hours speaking with Erdely from July through November. I was encouraged that my story — a very public one in the last eight years — would be told again in order to give context to the eerily similar rape of Jackie, the student victim in Erdely’s story.

Over 30 years ago, I told my own story to then student journalist Gayle Wald, who wrote extensively of my rape in the now defunct UVA newspaper, the University Journal. I asked that she use a pseudonym (Kate) for me, and, like Jackie, I begged her not to interview the one man I knew had raped me, as I feared repercussions. There were two other attackers whose names I did not know. When I went to the dean of students at that time, Robert Canevari, I was covered in bruises, still bloodied, and had broken bones. He sat at his big desk across from me and suggested I was a liar and had mental problems for reporting my rape. Some of my new friends told me not to tell, that no one would believe me, that I would ruin my own reputation and that of “Mr. Jefferson’s University.”

Former George journalist Richard Bradley fired the first shot at the Rolling Stone story. “I’m not sure that this gang rape actually happened,” he wrote in a blog post, using brilliant plagiarist Stephen Glass (whom he edited, and who duped him) as a comparison base for the idea that astounding and uncomfortable stories must be fabricated. Though Bradley’s rant was on his personal blog, doubts have now burbled up at established outlets. Jonah Goldberg shares his opinion in an incredibly dismissive piece at the Los Angeles Times — “Much of what is alleged (though Erdely never uses the word ‘alleged’) isn’t suitable for a family paper,” he writes, as if the brutality of an assault could possibly be a measure of its veracity. (His colleague Meghan Daum was more reasonable.) Slate’s Alison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin, posted a thoughtful piece and podcast that asks the journalistic questions without doubting that brutal gang rapes happen.

And that’s what’s missing in all of this: the distinction between discussing journalism ethics and dismantling an important discussion because the subject matter seems extremely distressing. Wholesale doubt or dismissal of a rape account because it sounds “too bad to be true” is ridiculous. Is it easier to believe a rape by a single stranger upon a woman in a dark alley? What about marital rape? What if a prostitute is raped? Just how bad was it? We should not have a rape continuum as part of the dialogue, ever.

So, yes, gang rape happens, it happens today on college campuses, just look at Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilts recent experiences, or mass druggings of girls at a frat party. Just because her allegations were shocking was not a good reason to disbelieve them. Just ask Liz Seccuro. Her experience was too similar to just dismiss such allegations based on gut-feelings, and have been confirmed subsequently by an admission by one of her attackers and a criminal conviction. I still believe that this was wrong, and my original complaint that, “Not on any independent investigation, sourcing or facts, they’re smearing this victim.” I still think that’s shoddy reporting and that statement came before I had the Washington Post’s real reporting which came later. What the Washington Post performed was actual journalism, and they successfully demonstrated that yes, there were real problems with Jackie’s facts in this story. However, it’s wrong to say that her story is a “hoax” as the same reporting suggests she was found distraught that night, claimed that she had been assaulted (although with notably different details – no visible injury, claims of being forced to perform oral sex etc.), but more likely her story has been exaggerated in the retelling rather than completely fabricated as many have gleefully crowed in the comments of this and other blogs. Sorry MRAs, her story can’t be dismissed as a hoax, and before we had the data that the Post had, it was unfair to dismiss this story simply because it didn’t conform to what one thinks such stories should sound like. Bradley was right in this instance, but only because he got lucky, he would have been really off if he had been in charge of Liz Seccuro’s story.

My second critique was that in cases such as this there is no benefit of seeking “balance” by interviewing the alleged rapists, and this is a source of legitimate debate among journalists and survivors like Seccuro who believe it will further make coming forward more difficult for fear of retribution. I don’t know what is the right answer or that there is a uniform protocol for every case. In the current incarnation of the Rolling Stone header they say:

We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.

I’m torn, certainly in this case it did not serve the victim that they did not seek this confirmation, but it’s also clear they failed on multiple fronts in confirming the story, including the date of the event which does not appear consistent with a social event hosted at the fraternity Jackie alleges was the location of the rape. I think this should still be left to the victim but journalists in the future should then take extra care to independently corroborate the details of the event, a failure in this instance. A generalization that there should be one way to perform this kind of reporting seems crude, and a poor fit for reporting on such a difficult and sensitive topic for survivors. I think if RS had done a better job confirming the story this would not have been a problem, but only in the face of the holes in Jackie’s particular story does it seem so glaring. There is no doubt that in future reporting the pendulum will swing towards required interviews with the alleged attackers, this strikes me as a disservice as there is more than one way to skin this cat.

So what have we learned? What can be done better in the future? The consensus seems to be that Rolling Stone screwed up and it isn’t Jackie’s fault. The evidence seems to be that Jackie was sexually-assaulted, but in the time since she has expanded her story in the retelling. This is not her fault, this is a very human failing, memory is fluid, and her experience traumatic. Many (including Bradley)have pointed out we will likely never figure out the “truth” now at this late date, but dismissing her story as a “hoax” is also likely a disservice to the truth.

I believe, as in my original “never event” article is that the problem rape on campus is one of inadequate data. Slate has an interesting summary of the research although I strongly disagree with their repetition of the MRA nonsense that “forced kissing” is somehow not sexual assault. Minimizing acts of sexual assault that fall short of penetration is ridiculous. Non-consensual kissing, groping, fondling, grabbing etc., is assault, and it’s sexual. That aspect of the RS article actually still stands. Colleges and universities should not be internally adjudicating violent crimes in kangaroo courts, it’s a disservice to victims and the accused. It hides the data on rape, while abusing the due process civil rights of those accused of crimes. They just have no damn business getting involved in judging any serious criminal infractions.

And there may be some good that comes of this in the form of a new bipartisan bill which may prevent colleges from hiding the data.

On Wednesday morning, eight senators announced the bill, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, said the legislation would impose significant financial penalties on colleges for noncompliance with new federal mandates to release data about sexual violence on campus.

Every college would be required to participate in the survey and publish results online, and the penalty for colleges that don’t report sexual assault crimes, as required by the Clery Act, would increase to $150,000 from $35,000 per violation.

Colleges would be required to supply confidential advisers to victims and train counselors. Athletic departments would not be allowed to handle sexual assault complaints. Colleges would need to coordinate a uniform plan with local law enforcement agencies. And the bill would provide federal funding to create and distribute an inexpensive, anonymous annual survey that asks all undergraduate students about experiences with sexual violence. Parents and students would be able to see the data, which may influence their decisions when applying to college.

“Right now schools have reason to repress reporting and be focused on public image rather than being focused on the problem, because there is no real penalty for not accurately reporting and there is no standardized survey,” said Nancy Cantalupo, a research fellow with the Victim Rights Law Center and a researcher at the Georgetown University Law Center, who acted as an informal consultant during some stages of the bill’s creation.

Ms. Dauber says transparency is the single most important change that Congress could bring about. “Absent transparency, we don’t know what problem we are trying to solve and we have no idea how to solve it,” she said. “We are just fumbling around in the dark. When you want to change, you take an honest inventory of your situation.”

Damn right. So hopefully there is a silver-lining in this ordeal.

NYT Helps in Typical Rape-victim Smearing

We should have predicted this when we discussed the UVa Rape story in Rolling Stone last week, it was just a matter of time before people would start suggesting the central figure in the story, Jackie, might be fabricating. I would be surprised if this response did not occur, because sadly it is so typical. What I’m surprised by is that the New York Times, is credulously repeating this smear led by Richard Bradley, and Jonah Goldberg of all people.

Still, some journalists have raised questions about the story. Richard Bradley, who as an editor at George magazine was duped by the former New Republic writer and fabulist Stephen Glass, said in an essay that he had since learned to be skeptical of articles that confirm existing public narratives. “This story contains a lot of apocryphal tropes,” he wrote. Others, including Jonah Goldberg, a Los Angeles Times columnist, compared the case to rape accusations in 2006 against three lacrosse players at Duke University who were subsequently cleared and speculated that the Virginia story might be a hoax.

First, I’ll give you Richard Bradley might be legitimate, but his argument is completely speculative. He says it merely sounds odd to him. Hardly newsworthy. But then Jonah Goldberg? Author of “Liberal Fascism”? Who gives a damn what he thinks about anything? On the basis of basically one credible reporter’s feeling, they feel this deserves an article suggesting Jackie was not a credible source. Not on any independent investigation, sourcing or facts, they’re smearing this victim. And their argument about Rolling Stone’s reporting being adequate is highly debatable.

The subject of the article, who was identified by only her first name, had requested that her assailants not be contacted, and Rolling Stone decided that her situation was too delicate to risk going against her wishes, according to people familiar with the reporting process who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

News media critics questioned the article’s reliance on a single source. “For the sake of Rolling Stone’s reputation,” said Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, “Sabrina Rubin Erdely had better be the country’s greatest judge of character.”

So, the story should be rejected because they didn’t contact the rapist for his take on the story? Let’s predict how that would go. The guy would either say, “no comment”, “it never happened”, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, or “talk to my lawyer.” If he was stupid he would admit some culpability or suggest it was consensual, thereby giving a future prosecutor an edge in establishing the fact of the crime. There, I filled in the blanks. Do they really think that would add anything to this story, or result in it not being reported? This is total nonsense.

Worse, it ignores the focus of the story, which isn’t about the facts of the victims allegations but in how my Alma Mater handles such allegations which is clearly sourced from discussions with several school administrators including the president Teresa Sullivan.

Can we call this anything but typical victim smearing? How dare the New York Times thoughtlessly promote this unethical critique of Rolling Stones reporting and this rape victim. This isn’t based on independent investigation, sourcing or facts, but on the feeling of one reporter, the reliable victim-bashing of a right-wing ideologue, and a misplaced argument about the value of obtaining “balance” by talking to an alleged rapist who (if he was smart) would undoubtedly be completely unhelpful or silent.

The point of Rolling Stone’s article was not to investigate a gang rape, but to expose how this University (and other universities as we discussed) similarly use internal rape boards to sweep crimes like these under the rug and avoid Clery Act reporting. NYT does a disservice to this victim, and other victims, by smearing Rolling Stone and Jackie in this fashion, without any real independent investigation or reporting. Maybe it’s time we write a letter to their ombudsman. I suggest you join me. Write to their public editor Margaret Sullivan at public@nytimes.com.

Also in today’s New York Times, another Cosby victim has come forward alleging sexual molestation when she was a minor. It strikes me as ironic, that this type of casual smearing of victims is the exact problem that allows serial rapists to thrive. Until we support victims, and stop reflexively accusing them of making rape allegations up, men who rape will have no problem moving from victim to victim without fear of justice.

Rape on Campus Should be a Never Event

The Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus” should be a must read for every one who attends college, plans to attend college, or has children or loved ones on a college campus, especially one with a significant fraternity presence. UVa is my alma mater for two of my degrees, but this story reminded me more of my experience as an undergraduate at Bucknell University, a small, private, liberal arts university in Pennsylvania which is also dominated by fraternity culture. My experience there with sexual assault was not as a victim, but as a member of one of the pseudo-legal sexual assault boards, which I believe contribute to this problem of pervasive sexual assaults on college campuses. In the course of my time at Bucknell I was intimately involved with the intramural justice system, such as it was, and over the course of about 2 years I figured out what a tragedy such systems are, both for the victims of crime but also for the accused and for our rape culture as a whole. These systems do not serve any recognizable form of justice, and instead only exist to create an illusion of responsiveness to serious crime on campus by universities, while doing a disservice to all parties involved, and the schools know it. They exist to sweep these problems under the rug, and hide from site the ugly problems of violence, rape culture, privilege and racism from public view.

My experience with our campus judicial system started when I was a sophomore. I had just finished a summer internship working as a criminal investigator with the Public Defenders Office in Washington DC, a life-altering experience that involved investigating crimes, finding and interviewing witnesses, serving subpoenas, and testifying in court on behalf of juvenile offenders in one of our most violent cities. Ironically, within my first week back on campus I was falsely-accused of misconduct, after I reacted quite rudely to a RA who showed up at my door and, seemingly out of the blue, accused me of drinking in public and running from her when she called after me. I had been sitting in my room with several friends for the last hour so I reacted brusquely, called her an idiot, and slammed the door in her face. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, the person who had been seen had fled from her through our group apartment, in the back door and out the front, and I looked enough like him that the RA was understandably confused. My summer internship had prepared me incredibly well to deal with such officious authority figures, I wasn’t going to be hassled by some busybody who had no legal authority to harass me in my domicile. How naive I was.

As a result I got to experience the judicial board of my school first hand, first in a sit-down meeting with a dean at which I was threatened and bullied. I was told that I would face serious disciplinary action, calls to my parents etc, and a hearing in front of a judicial board at which I would receive no counsel and have to defend myself from my accuser in front of a group of faculty and peers. Or I could just make things easy and admit to drinking in public and running from the RA and face a minor disciplinary action which they would decide after I confessed! I refused. I told them I would do no such thing, I had already told my parents about the non-incident, had letters from multiple witnesses that proved I was not the guilty party and I wasn’t going to be bullied into telling a lie (my ace up my sleeve was the person who actually ran from the RA was willing to come forward if they called my bluff). Amazingly it worked. But my curiosity was piqued. What was this judicial system run within my university? Why did my dean make it sound like it was just a rubber stamp to punish those that refused to admit to any accusation from the administration? What crazy system of rules had we signed up for without a thought when we matriculated to this university?

It turns out that at most universities there are judicial systems, variably composed of faculty, administrators, and students who are responsible for hearing accusations of everything from academic violations such as cheating (which seems quite reasonable) to vandalism, drug crimes (woah), violent crimes, and yes, even sexual assault (insane). Using connections with friends on student government I got appointed to the judicial board of my school, with an eye for standing up for those, like me, who were falsely-accused and might be railroaded into falsely confessing. I was going to defend the innocent and be an obstruction to the rubber-stamp justice system of my school.

Instead my experience showed me that no one is safe from the biases inherent in serving on such panels, and there is no way for either the victims or the accusers to get justice from these fundamentally-flawed systems.

Take as an example, a student accused of smoking weed in their room. A complaint could be filed with as little as the detection of the odor of marijuana by an RA, without any physical evidence of possession, drug tests demonstrating intoxication, etc. A student could then end up in front of a dean, and after refusing to comply with whatever arbitrary discipline the dean suggests they end up in front of their pet rubber-stamp judicial committee. The committee is hand-picked by the dean and includes faculty members and students, if I recall correctly, faculty outnumbered the students on our boards. The hearing consists of a student, who may bring one person with them (who may not speak), in front of a board of their peers and faculty, and whoever accuses them of wrongdoing. The proceedings are loosely-based on court proceedings with the usual opening statements, testimony, presentation of any relevant evidence, cross by the accused, and closing statements. The evidence required to secure a disciplinary action is a “preponderance of evidence”, a lower-level of proof usually reserved for civil liability cases often being applied to criminal accusations with significant risk to the student as they may be expelled, lose their scholarships, student aid or even forfeit their tuition. Imagine an 18-year-old trying to defend himself from a flimsy accusation of drug use, in the face of that panel, with those risks, with no counsel, no knowledge of rules of evidence, facing their professors and accuser all alone in a room with no standardization of disciplinary action (expulsion was basically always on the table). It was absurd. It was unfair. It was, in the words of one of my favorite professors who was also a lawyer, a “kangaroo court”.

Now let us raise the stakes. After a year serving on this kangaroo court, engaging in as much juror nullification as I could when the charges were nonsense, or victimless, I was, amazingly, asked to serve on the sexual assault board. Again I was stunned to learn about yet another parallel judicial system within our university that had the audacity to sit in judgment of the most serious and devastating crimes imaginable. Forgive me, this was around 1997, the internet was in its infancy, we just weren’t as as savvy as we are now. This board was shrouded in even more secrecy. We had to swear on penalty of expulsion that we would not share details of the cases. The format of the board was similar with students and faculty deciding on guilt or innocence based upon a preponderance of evidence, but the mechanics were even more bizarre. The victim would tell their story, and the accused could respond. There was no cross-examination exactly. The accused could pass questions to the sexual assault board which would decide if they were appropriate to ask the accuser, with the goal of preventing a potential rapist from bullying or shaming his victim. Most of the rules were designed to make it as safe of a place as possible for the victim, and while admirable, made the process even more arbitrary.

I learned two things that year serving on this board. One, my university had a problem with rape. Two, my university was hiding it.

We were made aware rape was a problem on college campuses from day one, we were all introduced to it during orientation when the ugly statistics were presented to the entire freshman class. The stats seemed impossible to believe coming from high schools where everyone knew each other, often for our whole lives, that the same kind of people we grew up with would be the victims and perpetrators of such crimes at such a high rate. The studies agree, about 20% of women will be victims of sexual assault during their time at college. After a year in college I had a friend who was raped after a fraternity party (at another school). The women I was friends with at Bucknell would tell me about which fraternities on campus were the rape fraternities. In a small town in central Pennsylvania, in a formerly dry county, there is no alternative social scene aside from the fraternities, as a result, your choices were spending nights in doing laundry or going to whichever house was having a party that weekend. Before parties at these houses my friends made pacts not to let each other get separated. I took their word for it that it was a problem. It may have helped that I was as an independent, an outsider. At a school where over half the population was Greek, I had to forgo regular access to parties and alcohol, and I was clueless as to what happened at most of the houses other than the one house where a majority of my friends rushed, and even there I was only vaguely aware of some unpleasant hazing rituals as a requirement for entry. My whole life I have been constitutionally incapable of participating in mindless group activity, it makes me anxious. Our first week at school we were led around by mindlessly-cheerful “OAs”, or Orientation Advisors, who would lead us as a group in a series of chants involving singing and clapping. I ran away and hid until it was over.

From experiences like these it was clear to me from early on in my college career, rape was common. It was even known which houses were rape houses. How is it possible that we didn’t object? Why did we tolerate it? We were young. We didn’t know it could be any other way, and on a college campus with all of our peers tolerating it it was just normal. Hey, don’t be alone at that house, you’ll get raped. Gee whiz. And from the Rolling Stone article it looks like little has changed:

The women rattle off which one is known as the “roofie frat,” where supposedly four girls have been drugged and raped, and at which house a friend had a recent “bad experience,” the Wahoo euphemism for sexual assault. Studies have shown that fraternity men are three times as likely to commit rape, and a spate of recent high-profile cases illustrates the dangers that can lurk at frat parties, like a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee frat accused of using color-coded hand stamps as a signal to roofie their guests, and this fall’s suspension of Brown University’s chapter of Phi Kappa Psi – of all fraternities – after a partygoer tested positive for the date-rape drug GHB. Presumably, the UVA freshmen wobbling around us are oblivious to any specific hazards along Rugby Road; having just arrived on campus, they can hardly tell one fraternity from another. As we pass another frat house, one of my guides offers, “I know a girl who got assaulted there.”

“I do too!” says her friend in mock-excitement. “That makes two! Yay!”

This is chillingly-familiar. Also familiar was the parallel justice of the Sexual Misconduct Board:

When Jackie finished talking, Eramo comforted her, then calmly laid out her options. If Jackie wished, she could file a criminal complaint with police. Or, if Jackie preferred to keep the matter within the university, she had two choices. She could file a complaint with the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board, to be decided in a “formal resolution” with a jury of students and faculty, and a dean as judge. Or Jackie could choose an “informal resolution,” in which Jackie could simply face her attackers in Eramo’s presence and tell them how she felt; Eramo could then issue a directive to the men, such as suggesting counseling. Eramo presented each option to Jackie neutrally, giving each equal weight. She assured Jackie there was no pressure – whatever happened next was entirely her choice.

Like many schools, UVA has taken to emphasizing that in matters of sexual assault, it caters to victim choice. “If students feel that we are forcing them into a criminal or disciplinary process that they don’t want to be part of, frankly, we’d be concerned that we would get fewer reports,” says associate VP for student affairs Susan Davis. Which in theory makes sense: Being forced into an unwanted choice is a sensitive point for the victims. But in practice, that utter lack of guidance can be counterproductive to a 19-year-old so traumatized as Jackie was that she was contemplating suicide. Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of a school offering to handle the investigation and adjudication of a felony sex crime – something Title IX requires, but which no university on Earth is equipped to do – the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing.

“This is an alarming trend that I’m seeing on campuses,” says Laura Dunn of the advocacy group SurvJustice. “Schools are assigning people to victims who are pretending, or even thinking, they’re on the victim’s side, when they’re actually discouraging and silencing them. Advocates who survivors love are part of the system that is failing to address sexual violence.”

This is exactly correct. As long as the schools have a mechanism to deal with these crimes internally, they will not encourage women to report their assailants to police and engage the courts where cases such as these belong. And indeed this was my experience at Bucknell. As long as schools can discourage reporting, and shroud their process in secrecy, the sources of rape on campus will be hidden and protected. And as I learned, the secrecy of these systems also can be used to silence criticism and dissent.

As a member of our parallel legal system I heard about each of the cases that was to be adjudicated before our system, once I had to recuse myself as I knew one of the parties, and as I gained more experience I also noticed something disturbing. Not one of the cases brought before the board involved a fraternity or a fraternity brother, despite the majority of our students being greek. All of the cases involved independent minority students, despite my university’s notoriously non-diverse campus. In other words, on a campus where my girlfriends would describe a frat house as “rapey”, the only cases I saw being adjudicated were against independent, minority students who represented < 5% of the population.

I had a small sample size, unfortunately. It was only my own personal experience. Maybe that year was a fluke? I can’t be sure.  I began to see the board as not just hopelessly flawed in dealing with what should be a criminal matter, but worse, implemented in such a way as to mask the criminality of the privileged students on campus.   The sexual assault board took the worst features of our criminal justice system, which often sees fit to punish minorities more frequently, and more harshly, and combined it with the worst rules of evidence from the civil justice system, all while shrouding the process in secrecy. But soon I was going to graduate, and move on, and fighting with the administration and board seemed pretty pointless as my next goal, getting into medical school, loomed larger, and fights with the administration would not help me on that path.

What should be the solution to this system that our schools have cobbled together from a tradition of internal disciplinary processes, mashed together with well-intentioned but obtuse quasi-legal processes? We know what the statistics are, 25% of women are sexually assaulted but only a tiny fraction bring legal action against their attacker. We know that men that rape will usually rape more than once. How can we say we are serving the interests of our students when we hide our own statistics, hide the locations and sources of rape, and then passively discourage reporting of rapists(who will rape again) with this paralysis of choice? It should be clear, university sexual assault boards do not serve the interests of victims of sexual assault, they serve the interests of the university. In doing so, they obscure the facts, they minimize rape by downgrading it from a felony to “misconduct”, and they create an alternative path of punishment that allows rapists to escape real criminal justice so they can victimize more women. They should be universally dismantled.

Reporting of rape does not have to disclose details of the victim to be effective. Details of the crime and the victim can be protected while appropriately reporting, collecting data, and informing and protecting the public from this crime. Let’s take an example from medicine. There are events in medicine that we refer to as “never events.” These are events that should never happen, yet they do, because of human error, systems errors, and sometimes by terrible luck. But if appropriate systems and protections are in place we believe we can make them vanishingly rare. They include things like operating on the wrong patient, or the wrong body part, transfusing the wrong blood type, or switching an infant. Interestingly, the list of never events includes sexual victimization of patients under a hospital’s care. When a never event occurs, hospitals are required to report it, and an investigation will occur to determine exactly where the system broke down, and where the error occurred so that it may never happen again.  Yes it’s embarrassing to the hospital when such things occur, but it’s actually reassuring to the public to see that when they do occur the response is serious, and there is accountability and change in practice as a result.

If we were as serious about rape as we are about not leaving a sponge behind in a patient, when such an event as this occurred it would result in an immediate report to an independent auditor who would collect data on these events. Without disclosing details of the victim, just as we do not need to disclose details of the patient, the report would be public with regard to the location and type of incident and non-identifying details. Disclosing the assault to the police could still be at the discretion of the victim, but we must standardize the advice to victims so that parties with conflicts of interest – like school administrators – can’t protect their institution by discouraging criminal prosecution or public disclosure. An attempt at a system like this was made once with the Clery Act, however cases are obviously slipping through the cracks. If students don’t file an official report, or are discouraged from reporting, the numbers will always appear far lower than the reality. Here is Bucknell’s report for the last 3 years. In that time about 32 forcible sexual assaults are recorded and the data only really narrows it down to “on campus” or “off campus”. How is that helpful? Given the known rates of sexual assault how can we even consider this to be remotely accurate? We would expect well over 100 assaults to occur per year, this suggests less than 10% are being reported, and in the vaguest way possible, as “on campus” includes fraternities for Bucknell.  UVA’S Clery act reporting is even more pathetic with as many as 20,000 undergrad and grad students on campus they report 32 rapes last year.  Clery Act reporting is a joke. There should be a map, with a point showing where each assault is reported to have occurred. If assaults cluster in an area, such as a particular house it should be shut down.

The only people that fear data collection and study are crooks and cranks. Just look at how the NRA tries to suppress research into gun violence, or how Republicans try prevent agencies like the DOD or EPA from performing or benefiting from scientific research into climate change. Their motives are obvious, they know the data are damning. If you believe, like Gawker that frats should be shut down, this is unlikely to happen and will likely just result in mindless push-back. A more modest proposal is to force the collection of high quality data, requiring colleges to record and report all allegations of rape, whether or not they result in police reports or criminal prosecution so they can’t use internal mechanisms to avoid Clery act reporting. Reports should be specific and tied to geographical presentation of the data about sources of sexual assault on and off campus. If your frat is the rape hotspot on campus it gets investigated by external auditors, and if it’s negligent or complicit it gets shut down. The goal will be to identify the sources of rape on campus. Rape will likely never be as rare as “never events” given the complexity of the crime but we don’t act as a society as though we’re truly interested in solving the problem. We won’t be able to reduce the frequency of rapes on campus as long as our process for dealing with it only exists to protect the institutional reputation and ignores the interests of victims.  What “never events” have taught us in medicine is that being transparent about events that we are embarrassed by isn’t as bad for the institution as sweeping such incidents under the rug.  Until we study exactly how, where, why it happens, and make that data public no one will be empowered to enact the changes necessary reduce the frequency of rape on college campuses.

Rebecca Watson's Skepticon talk is NOT an example of science denialism

I was recently pointed to this post by Edward Clint which purports to show Rebecca Watson using the 5 tactics of science denialism during her talk “How Girls Evolved to Shop” which was critical of evolutionary psychology at Skepticon.

I watched her talk, found it entertaining, informative, wondered why I haven’t been invited to Skepticon, and I found I agreed with many of her examples of really bad pop psychology nonsense that’s filtered into the media through both scientists, press-release journalism, and marketing disguised as science. In particular the “pink is for girls” idiocy, which when I wrote about it at the time I came to the same conclusions as Watson that it was a stupid interpretation of the data, and the researcher who was actually promoting this glib, incorrect, and historically-bogus interpretation was a fool. It was unusual in that it was an example of the scientist herself, not even the media, disastrously misinterpreting the data to make it meld with a specific societal bias about females.

The problem with this talk was that Watson used specific examples, especially those made prominent by the media, as indicative of the entire field of evolutionary psychology, and thus may have over-generalized about the field as a whole. Even though at the end when asked if there are any good evolutionary biology papers, she suggests there likely are but that’s not what makes it into the media because they’re probably boring (lies are often more entertaining), it was too late. The thrust of her talk probably was too one-sided, and suggested the nonsense that idiot journalists latch onto, and some of the more oddball researchers are indicative of an entire field, which is unfair. Edward Clint takes this as a sign of science denialism, however, and tries to fit the 5 tactics to her talk. While I agree that Watson may have over-generalized, this isn’t denialism. Let’s go over his points and discuss why I don’t think her talk crosses this line.

Clint states:

The denialism brought to Skepticon was to the field of evolutionary psychology, a thriving social science with roots going back to Charles Darwin himself. The critic was internet pundit and self-described feminist and skeptic Rebecca Watson. Watson is known for her blog website, as co-host of a popular skeptic podcast, and for speaking at secular and skeptic conferences. But Watson holds no scientific training or experience. The charge of science denialism is a serious one, and I will support the claim with a preponderance of evidence.

Ok, first of all, you don’t need to be a scientist or an expert in a particular field to be critical of it. At no point does Watson suggest she’s an expert, which would have been the only reason why such a critique is relevant. A layperson is perfectly entitled to research a field, and then give a talk such as this critical of a systematic bias towards women present in the field. I think she actually makes a compelling argument that there is a bias problem in the interpretation of the data coming out of these papers, and a big PR problem for evolutionary psych in that it’s especially the biased, stupid, and inane studies the media latches onto and amplifies for lay consumption. She doesn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s how I interpreted her talk.

He continues:

The main points Watson wants to drive home are that evolutionary psychology isn’t science (as indicated by the quotes in the subtitle), and that researchers involved in it work deliberately to reinforce stereotypes and to oppress women. Watson frequently makes overly broad claims about the “they” or “it” of evolutionary psychology without further specificity, leading her audience to assume she simply refers to the entirety of the field, or to a large majority of it.

This is an unfair evaluation of her talk. I don’t think at any point Watson indicates this behavior is deliberate, malicious, or dishonest. It’s clear that she’s exposing a systematic bias in the interpretation of the data from these studies. She is not suggesting fabrication, tweaking, or dishonesty, just stupid conclusions, and flawed study designs, and I agree with her that in these examples, she makes the case, these particular researchers are either idiots or blind to bias.

Now we may ask, how would an (apparently) expert skeptic investigate the domain of evolutionary psychology to reach and support the conclusions that Watson has? The first step should be having a firm grasp on what evolutionary psychology is, and to have a working familiarity with the subject. Since we are talking about a scientific field, this at least would mean reading some papers, or maybe at a minimum, some scholarly reviews and meta-analyses. And they should be typical of the field, meaning from reputable journals and mainstream researchers. It would be silly to call biologists creationists and religiously motivated while pointing to Michael Behe and Francis Collins as examples of biologists as a whole.

As far as Watson’s over-generalization of her findings to the field I agree with this criticism, however, my interpretation of the talk as a whole was about how when it came to ascribing differences in behavior due to sex that evolutionary psych has some big problems with systematic bias towards affirming societal stereotypes about women. I think she makes a compelling case for this, but it is possible, of course, that the cases she listed are the glaring exceptions. Clearly with regard to Kanazawa, the guy is a crackpot, but she also had some pretty deadly critiques of other more legitimate researcher’s conclusions.

However, Watson seems to have only the most superficial understanding of evolutionary psychology and it isn’t clear that she’s read even one paper in the field.

This is unfair and disproven by the talk in which she provides specific critiques and interpretations of data where they conflict with the author’s conclusions. It’s very hard to do this without reading the paper.

There are many reasons to think this. She cited no sources during her 48-minute talk beyond what is mentioned in newspapers and other media or publicly available abstracts. While she derided media distortion in one part of the talk, she implicitly trusted media reports for the bulk of it, and rather uncritically.

I don’t understand this because it’s clear from the video that her slides actually have several of the papers up and clearly visible. I also don’t think she blindly trusted media reports either, as she cites specific instances, like the “pink is for girls” study, in which the media cooverage, and the author’s own conclusions differed from the data.

At the end of her talk, an audience member asks Watson if there is any “good evolutionary psychology”. Watson throws up her hands while saying “prooobably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring.. because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. […] if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media[…]” (see index 47:30)

Setting aside the striking anti-science attitude that only media-hypable science can be interesting, as well as the jarring ignorance that a scientific field composed of thousands of researchers working for decades and publishing in numerous reputable science journals only “probably” has some good work being done, Watson clearly reveals that she is only familiar with evolutionary psychology in the “media,” having moments before shown incontrovertibly how unreliable the media is.

I don’t think she expresses the attitude that media hype is only sign of interesting science. I think her talk should have been narrowed, however, to specifically address how evolutionary psychology has major bias problems when it attempts to explain differences between male and female behavior.

The first work she mentions in her talk is important because it sets the tone and is, presumably, important to her thesis that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscientific and sexist. She cites a Telegraph article referring to a study done by one Dr. David Holmes about the psychology of shopping. However, this is an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study conducted by a non-evolutionary psychologist paid for by a business to help them sell things better. This has no relevance to Watson’s thesis, unless it’s also true that Colgate’s “9 out of 10 dentists recommend you give us your toothpaste money” studies prove that dental science is bunk.

Again this is an unfair criticism, because she specifically addressed that this was marketing disguised as science. Watson states:

“all of the best studies I think are commissioned by shopping centers, so no this is actually marketing disguised as science, which is a trend that is becoming more and more popular as mainstream new outlets phase out any and all support for actual journalists that understand science.”

The strength of her point was how she moved from the obvious, BS, marketing-driven science and compared it directly to actual academic evolutionary psych purporting to show the exact same thing.

Supporting the extraordinary claims that a large scientific domain is sexist in general and methodologically bereft requires extraordinary evidence. It should entail a very serious, careful look at the nuts and bolts. How is peer-review accomplished? How well does it function? Are many awful studies passing it? How many? How easily? How is it that thousands of people, women and men, in dozens of countries across decades of time are all morally compromised in the same way? Did she speak to even one person who actually does evolutionary psychology?

I agree with Clint here that she needs more evidence before she castigates the entire field, however, I do think that she makes a compelling argument that (1) evolutionary psych has issues with injecting societal bias towards women into its conclusions – and this is actually not an extraordinary idea given the long history of psych and bias towards women, non-whites, immigrants etc (I would suggest a read of “Mismeasure of Man”) . If it been completely eradicated, I’d be shocked. Her failing was she generalized this flaw to evolutionary psych as a whole, and not just this subset of papers dealing with sex differences in behavior in which the findings always seem to conform with the most recent societal biases. (2) I think she shows, and this is not in dispute, that findings which reinforce a stereotype about women are widely circulated in a credulous media, and this is harmful.

Finally, let’s address Clint’s critiques that this actually represents the 5 tactics.

Clint Writes:

In 2007 Scienceblogs writer Mark Hoofnagle wrote an oft-cited essay about 5 general tactics used by denialists to sow confusion. John Cook distilled these a bit for an article in 2010 which discusses climate science denial.

It is useful to cite Hoofnagle here because Rebecca Watson demonstrates all five of these in a single presentation and because climate science and evolutionary psychology have a lot in common.

Watson’s denialist tactics

1. Conspiracy theories
Watson frequently spoke of a shadowy, diffuse “they” of evolutionary psychology. When she cited researchers by name, they were held as examples of the they, and not distinguished as a subclass. She also often spoke to their devious, immoral intentions. Not just that they’re mistaken about their claim or that their method is flawed, but that they actively wanted to oppress women and reinforce harmful stereotypes. Thousands of people in dozens of countries, women and men all working together toward goals such as defending rape as “natural” and therefore good (see video indices 20:07, 22:43, 23:41, 35:40, 36:08, 38:40). No evidence was presented which could establish these ulterior motives in such a large group, and as I shall explain, they are entirely false. Mark Hoofnagle wrote the following on Scienceblogs about conspiracy theories; not Watson’s, but his words fit equally well here:

[…] But how could it be possible, for instance, for every nearly every scientist in a field be working together to promote a falsehood? People who believe this is possible simply have no practical understanding of how science works as a discipline.

The problem with Clint’s analysis is that at no point does Watson ascribe conspiratorial behavior to these scientists typical of a denialist argument. I think she’s ascribing a systematic bias towards women, and given the issues that science has had in the past with systematic bias towards less-valued groups in society, this is not either out of the realm of possibility or even surprising that it’s still persistent in psychology. This is where a reading of SJ Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man” would come in handy to understand how these biases are propagated. What was amazing was how Gould, in his description of the science behind alleged-differences in races, showed that the researchers weren’t fabricating or being outright deceptive, but were led by bias into over-interpreting data, throwing out inconsistent data, and methodological errors that would affirm their prior conclusions. Conspiracy in science is frankly absurd, but bias in science is a constant struggle, and one should, if anything, suspect its presence until proven otherwise. Contrast this to the global warming conspiracism of cranks such as Inhofe, who describe the entire field as a “hoax”, which suggests active deception for an alterior motive.

Denialist conspiracy theories are non-parsimonious. That is they raise more questions than they answer, because they’re generally being used to explain the absence of data, rather than fit together existing data into an explanation of reality. This is why it’s so absurd when denialists talk about actual conspiracies, like criminal conspiracies, or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Those are not “conspiracy theories” in the modern parlance, because they provide an explanation that fits the data, the results of investigation, motives, etc. They don’t create more questions, like, “how could all those thousands of people keep quiet.” The answer is they can’t. Just ask Lance Armstrong, the tobacco companies, or any gangster that’s had their operation undone by a snitch. Secrets are pretty hard to keep.

Watson is not proposing a non-parsimonious conspiracy theory here, instead she’s demonstrating examples in which authors are clearly overinterpreting their data to conform to societal assumptions about women. This is far from an extraordinary claim about psychology, it’s been demonstrated in the past, and is something psychologists should be on constant guard against, because it is more likely than not that at some point bias will enter their interpretation of data. Watson’s case is pretty solid, in regards to these examples, that the bias is plain to see.

Next:

Fake experts are not featured prominently in Watson’s talk. However, at the end Watson cites several fake experts whose opinions on the science are inconsistent with established, uncontroversial knowledge. She implores the audience to read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a book seeking to justify a radical social constructionist view of gender differences. While Fine makes some reasonable points about some flawed studies, scholarly reviews have criticized Fine for cherry-picking studies as examples which are amenable to her conclusion and ignoring the rest

Watson goes on to suggest Greg Laden’s blog. Laden is a bioanthropologist who is on record uttering unscientific opinions such as that men are testosterone-damaged women.

Clint acknowledges these examples are weak, and in particular picking on Greg is really just a smear. I think it’s hard to interpret his post on “men as testosterone-damaged women” as serious, as he himself says:

e. Or whatever. Other people were more thoughtful about it and objected to the statement because it is wrong. Well, that’s good, because it is in a way wrong, because it is an oversimplification. But it was not meant to be a description of the biological and cultural processes associated with the development of individual personality, culture, and society. I am a little surprised that people thought it was such a statement, because it is so obviously a remark designed to poke certain men in the eye.

It was a shock-statement, not a serious statement of scientific fact, and it’s unfair of Clint to be dismissive of Laden over such a triviality. Only the MRAs seem to take that statement seriously, and they, as a group, should be ignored whenever possible. As far as Cordelia Fine, I have a great deal of trouble speaking with any confidence on her position in the field as a non-expert myself. However, reading Diane Halpern’s review in Science (no denialist rag) I find it to be more-nuanced that Clint’s quote suggested. Halpern writes:

Cleverly written with engaging prose, Delusions of Gender and Brain Storm contain enough citations and end notes to signal that they are also serious academic books. Fine and Jordan-Young ferret out exaggerated, unreplicated claims and other silliness regarding research on sex differences. The books are strongest in exposing research conclusions that are closer to fiction than science. They are weakest in failing to also point out differences that are supported by a body of carefully conducted and well-replicated research.

I think a book described by an expert reviewer as a “serious academic book” but flawed in one regard shouldn’t be so easily dismissed, as this reviewer in Science, while critical, was mostly positive about her book. I think the fake expert moniker should not be applied to either of these two, and frankly, considering true fake experts out there like Monckton, the assertion is somewhat laughable.

Next:

3. Cherry picking
As outlined in part II, Watson restricted her citations to stories that appear in the general media and critical popular science books. She focused on some of the worst possible examples that could be found, such as the interviews (not publications) with the disgraced Satoshi Kanazawa, instead of focusing on mainstream, reputable researchers. She also limited her citations to the sub-topic of sex and gender differences. While it is understandable that she may choose a narrow topic to present to a conference, she frequently makes her claims about the field in general, not merely as it pertains to sex and gender differences. For example, she rehashes Stephen Jay Gould’s “just so stories” criticism, (long debunked by biologists and others), but then uses as examples only sex and gender claims.

Now here I agree with Clint, Watson should have limited her remarks to evolutionary psych and the “sub-topic” of sex gender differences, as it’s clear that there is more to evolutionary psych than this idiotic “girls like pink” crap. But I’m also going to disagree with him that Stephen Jay Gould’s criticism has been “debunked” based on his provided link I actually agree more with Gould than I do the author. While Gould was clearly proven wrong in a few instances, I think his criticism of “just-so stories” is actually quite-compelling, and is an attempt to try to avoid a biased understanding of evolutionary mechanisms to try to find a purpose to every behavior, or every evolutionary modification. This criticism reads truer to me than many of the post-hoc explanations I’ve seen in evolutionary biology, and if anything should be internalized by researchers in this field. To reject the possibility that one is telling a “just-so story” without adequate evidence is to reject the null hypothesis prematurely. While it is clear from the essay that this evolutionary psych can have its hypotheses tested, and even that Gould was wrong in one instance, doesn’t mean that it’s a tendency in the field and one that needs to be addressed.

4. Impossible expectations of what research can deliver
Some of Watson’s criticisms would un-make many sciences were we to take them seriously. For example she says (13:27) “they never tell us what genes” as if this is a grand indictment of evolutionary psychology. There are scientists making in-roads in this area, but tracing the path from genes to structures to behavior is difficult-to-impossible, except in the case of disease and disorder. Further, we certainly don’t hold any other sciences to that standard, even the ones for which genes and adaptation are critical. Does anyone know precisely which genes make a cheetah fast, and exactly how they accomplish that? The peacock’s feathers, the fish’s gills? Shall we toss out all the evolutionary biology for which we do not have genetic bases identified? I should think not. Cognitive science also focuses on models divorced from physical stuff like genes and even neurons, but no one doubts that genes and neurons make cognitive capabilities possible (which is why genetic illnesses can severely impact them).

While it’s true that it would be unreasonable to posit a genetic explanation for each trait since so many traits are polygenic, and we have a very incomplete understanding of the function of much of the genome, this criticism shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. Eventually this field will have to incorporate genome-wide analysis into our understanding of human behavior, although Clint is right, not every finding in biology that’s important or worth publishing about needs to be explained down to the last atom.

At 15:41 Watson derisively explained her view of the method of evolutionary psychology as picking a behavior, assuming it is evolved, and then find “anything” in the past that might be relevant to it. Setting aside the inaccuracy of her summary, she seemed to be balking that such an hypothesis is just totally made up. Yes, Ms. Watson, it is. That is how science works. It is not known what the answers are before starting, so a researcher makes as good a guess as they can and then tests it.

Yes, but the real criticism here is the absence of testing the null hypothesis, as I explained above. This should be a critical component of hypothesis testing. She also has a point that if there are too many explanations for the data, all of them consistent, the finding isn’t of particular value.

At 13:39 Watson says that we can’t know enough about the distant past to make assessments of what might have been adaptive. She refers to variation in climate and “environment” and that the lives of our ancestors also “varied”. In other words, evolutionary psychologists can’t make any assumptions. We can’t assume women got pregnant and men didn’t, or that predators needed to be avoided, or that sustenance needed to be secured through hunting or foraging; these are real assumptions evolutionary psychologists use. If we were to toss out evolutionary psychology for this reason, we must also toss out much of biology, archaeology as well as paleoanthropology. Much care must be used in deciding what can and can’t be assumed about the past, but archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, biologists and evolutionary psychologists know this quite well.

This is a valid point.

Last but not least:

5. Misrepresentations and logical fallacies
Please see section V. 25 False and misleading statements made by Watson. In that list, items 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, 18, 19, 20 and 25 are misleading statements. This is not a comprehensive list. Watson makes liberal use of logical fallacies. I will describe just one for the sake of brevity.

The naturalistic fallacy. One can hardly find a more pristine example of this fallacy than in criticism of evolutionary psychology, and Watson’s remarks were no exception. She spelled it out clearly at 38:30 “men evolved to rape… it was used as a well it’s natural for men to rape”. The problem to Watson is that some evolutionary psychologists study the phenomena of rape as a potential adaptation, or a product of adaptations such as the use of violence to obtain what one wants. Watson assumes that if rape is about sex, and sex is good because sex is natural, then rape must be natural and therefore good. This is an absurdity of course; it’s every shade of wrong from the rainbow of ultimate wrongness.

Yes, but Watson was describing it as a natural fallacy herself! You two are actually agreeing with each other.

I also think that his list of false or misleading claims by Watson is worth reading and it really should have been the starting point for the discussion about Watson’s talk. They actually have a lot of common ground between them, and frankly evolutionary psych needs a wake up call to its public image problem. Instead Clint clumsily tries to fit the tactics of denialism to her talk, and in my opinion, fails. Yes there are problems here, and he raises valid points. But the presence of denialism is not one of them.

Keep Akin in the race!

Everyone has heard about Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” and the push now coming from the GOP to get him out of the race. But is this really fair or ideal? The problem with removing Akin from the race over this is that his gaffe was not just one exposing his scientific ignorance, but because it was a Kinsley gaffe. That is, it’s a gaffe because it unintentionally revealed the truth.

I’m not saying that his medieval medical hypothesis has any scientific validity, he is after all just parroting pro-life misinformation spread to attack scientific data about the frequency of pregnancy after rape. The Kinsley gaffe in this case is that he revealed the truth about what he, and other pro-life politicians who support no-exception abortion bans, believe.

Why should we punish this truth-telling with removal of Akin from the race? All that will happen is that the GOP will replace Akin with another pro-life fanatic who is simply better at hiding what he actually believes about women, reproduction, sexual assault, and their autonomy over their own bodies.

I’m thankful for Akin’s honesty, because he has dropped the facade that the radical right cares about women, respects their autonomy, understands sexual assault or has any place in this century. He has pulled back the curtain and shown what they really believe. Other examples of this attitude abound, from the abusive ultrasound bills, to this comment from Idaho Republican Chuck Winder in March wondering if women even know what rape is, to American Vision’s comparison of the blowback against Akin as “like gang-rape”. He has only further exposed the misogyny of the pro-life movement and brought some of their more despicable lies front and center for all to see. We should be thanking him for his honesty.

Forcing Doctors to Perform Unnecessary Medical Procedures is Unethical and Unlawful

Many bloggers and commentators have expressed outrage over the decision by Virginia to require ultrasound examination, possibly transvaginal ultrasound, prior to women obtaining an abortion. From Bill Maher to Dahlia Lithwick people are outraged and have even suggested that it should be considered rape to force women to undergo vaginal examination by ultrasound prior to receiving abortion. Worse, it’s clear from statements like this one by delegate Todd Gilbert, that there isn’t a medical concern related to this intervention. It’s simply designed to humiliate women and interfere with the doctor patient relationship with exclusively anti-abortion motivations:

“the vast majority of these cases [abortion] are matters of lifestyle convenience.” And, 

”We think in matters of lifestyle convenience and in other matters that it is right and proper for a woman to be fully informed about what she is doing.

This just reflects how stupid these guys are, because anyone with half a brain could come up superficially plausible defense of the statute from grounds of medical safety. They’re just too brainless to do so and clearly are just trying to interfere with women and their doctors as they try to make a difficult decision.

There are some indications for ultrasound prior to abortion. Many physicians performing the procedure or especially offering medical abortion might perform a transvaginal ultrasound prior to proceeding. It can serve a few useful purposes. It can help confirm intrauterine pregnancy as well as uterine location. It may be needed to assess patients in their postoperative exam or medical follow up visits to rule out retained products of conception. In cases of uncertain dates, it can give you gestational age of the fetus, which may be critical in determining the appropriateness of the subsequent procedure used. After all, medical abortion is typically limited to the first 9 weeks and uncertainty about gestational age should result in ultrasound prior to use of medical abortifacients.

However, neither the FDA nor any professional organization of obstetricians and gynecologists indicate ultrasound should be a required component prior to medical or surgical abortion. The procedure is often unnecessary. So, what Virginia has done has legislated a requirement for an unnecessary medical procedure, unsupported by any professional medical association, on a specific subpopulation of women. Given the history of forced sterilization in Virginia, you’d think they’d be more sensitive on this issue. This is the state where Buck v Bell brought the issue of forced medical procedures to light.

This statute cannot, therefore, stand on either medical ethical or constitutional grounds. The state legislature can not force me or any other physician to perform an unnecessary, and therefore unethical, medical procedure. The state legislature can not pick on a subpopulation of citizens and force them to receive an unnecessary medical procedure.

I don’t think this law will stand, but it once again will require a legal fight, waste of time and resources, and all of this once again in a effort by governmental busybodies to interfere in women’s health decisions in a punitive fashion. The Republicans need to watch out. This is just another indication of a the size of the assault on women’s reproductive rights, and if they keep pushing, they’re going to see what a mistake it is to piss off 51% of the population.

**Update: I also noticed from Lithwick’s article Virginia has enacted a personhood law saying life begins at conception. More idiocy. This is like Indiana legislating the value of pi = 3. It is unscientific and illogical. Life does not begin. It is continuous. There is no dead state between parents and offspring. Sperm are alive, eggs are alive, the fusion of the two is alive. Instead they are legislating what constitutes life that is important, or more likely “ensouled”. As a fundamentally philosophic/religious and ultimately arbitrary point, government has no business legislating such a thing. But legislating that life has a “beginning” is biologically ignorant.

Should IQ and Race be studied and what is Lysenkoism anyway?

Dan MacArthur has started a big discussion on whether or not the relationship between IQ and race should be studied. Inspired by a pair of essays for and against the idea it has created a pretty healthy debate among the sciencebloggers including Razib with whom I will likely never agree on this issue. For the record, I’m on the side of those like Richard Nisbett (for a good review of his analysis of race and the black white divide see here PDF) that genetics are a poor explanation for the divide.

But this issue aside, why do I believe this is a still a bad idea to expend resources to evaluate the role of race and IQ? After all, that’s just what Nisbett has done in the paper cited above.
Continue reading “Should IQ and Race be studied and what is Lysenkoism anyway?”

I’m proud of ScienceBlogs

You know, we catch a lot of flack around these parts for being too “political”, and for straying away from “science”. Well, that’s a big load of crap, and two posts by Isis show why. It is impossible to separate politics from science from personal life, at least on one level. Now, perhaps I’ve become more conservative with age (although I doubt it), but certain parts of the discussion really disturbed me.

The rhetoric turned to some classical 70s-80s feminist themes, which can be rather useful, but as with most ideologies, trying to hard to cram all the facts into the theoretical framework leaves neither undamaged. Of course, I’m writing as a male who has experienced many of the benefits of the so-called patriarchy, but folks, it just ain’t that simple.

We all need to keep utopian ideas in mind. It give us hope, something to strive for. But in our real world, there will be no revolution, no turning-on-its-head of our society and its norms—and that’s a good thing, as dramatic revolutions never seem to work out quite the way they are intended. Change—change that is acceptable to individuals, and not forced upon them in re-education camps—comes incrementally.

Let me tell you the first thing that made me nauseated (from Isis):

[A prominent scientist] was visiting the MRU I was attending to give a seminar and I heard it casually mentioned that she had four children. After her talk I had the opportunity to attend a group lunch with her and during a lull in the conversation I asked how she managed to raise four children while managing a large lab and holding down a slew of research funding. She told me quite abruptly that her children and her work were separate entities. She keeps no pictures of her children in her office and does not display their artwork. She told me that she does not want people to walk into her office and immediately identify her by her family instead of her science.

[…]

A few years later I met a very prominent female physiologist at a seminar, except this time I was about 12 weeks pregnant. Again, it was mentioned that she had children and during a group meal I brought up the issue of raising children as a scientist. She told me that the only way her career worked was because she was able to send her children to live with her parents during the school year. I was devastated and seriously doubted my decision to become a mother or continue as an academic scientist. Then again, I had already sealed the deal, as it were.

What a crappy role model. This is the real world, and in the real world every family, every individual is different. Financial needs often determine which parent is staying home more, and this is not just the influence of patriarchy. My wife and I chose careers whose earning potentials are very different. You could argue that she was pushed toward hers because she’s a woman, but she like it and she’s damned good at it and it’s important work. You could argue that mine is paid better because it’s male dominated, but you’d be wrong. In my profession, about half of medical students are female. They face different challenges than their male colleagues, but there here and there stampin’ out disease. They’re also becoming mommies. As physicians, we work together intimately enough that it would be very hard to hide the fact that you’re a parent, and we’d all think it quite strange if you tried.

What kind of message would it send to my female residents if the female attendings “hid” their motherhood? Who’s the oppressor now?

Life is work. It’s hard. And finding balance, for both parents, in a world where we all have to earn a living and put food on the table, and have time to cuddle and care for our kids is sometimes nearly impossible. But nothing about that is ever going to get better if we tell our younger colleagues that it truly is impossible.

Artificial Arbitration at American Apparel?

Jezebel proclaims: Dov Charney May Be More of a Scumbag than Anyone Realized, and I agree if the reporting on a sexual harassment case, Mary Nelson v. American Apparel, rings true (the opinion is unpublished, and I haven’t obtained a copy yet). Charney is the founder of American Apparel, and has been the focus of several sexual harassment suits over the years for allegedly maintaining a sexually-charged work atmosphere.

Over at Conde Nast, Karen Donovan reports:

Female employees have filed three sexual harassment lawsuits against Charney. The last active suit was settled earlier this year, but details about it had not been disclosed until a California appellate court released a decision this week.

The decision, however, also describes a bizarre piece of theater concocted as part of the settlement proposal. In exchange for paying the former employee $1.3 million, she and her lawyers agreed to a sham “arbitration.” A retired judge picked by American Apparel would agree to stipulated facts and make a finding in the company’s favor.

[…]

The appellate decision lays out the sham arbitration of the settlement. It stipulated that the arbitrator would absolve Charney of the sexual harassment claims…[on First Amendment grounds]

[…]

Charney, to be sure, is all for the First Amendment. So much so that the settlement would have included this press release to be issued: “The arbitrator ruled that the marketing materials, sexual speech and much of the conduct about which Nelson complained are protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and would not form the basis for any claim.”

Wow! We all knew that arbitration runs the risk of being tilted toward business interests, but to agree in advance to have an entirely artificial arbitration process in order to whitewash an executive’s behavior? That’s priceless. What would one call this? AstroArbitration? It makes a mockery of a mockery.

If the arbitrators have any ethics, they’ll quickly adopt rules finding that such arrangements are unethical. We’ll see.